MANILA, Philippines — While China is set to work with the Philippines in the probe on the sinking of F/B Gem-Vir I (GemVer) last June 9 near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang maintained that it was an accidental collision.
“We are ready to enhance communication with the Philippine side on the investigation, increase understanding, dispel mistrust and find out what actually happened,” Lu said.
After the accident took place, Lu said China and the Philippines had rounds of communication at various levels through multiple unimpeded channels.
He said the statements following the incident were irresponsible and counter-constructive. These were nothing more than political interpretations of what happened, Lu added.
“In the spirit of cooperation and friendship, we believe this incident will be handled properly based on fact,” he said.
Lu also said Filipino and Chinese fishermen “have long been friendly with each other, rendering mutual assistance to the best of their capabilities in times of need.”
He said China places importance on maritime safety.
For its part, Malacañang yesterday stressed the need for a formal inquiry to ferret out the truth about the sinking of the Filipino-owned fishing boat.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said while the Filipino crew of the sunken ship have given their version of the incident, there are facts and circumstances still unknown.
Panelo noted that only one member of the crew, the cook, was awake before and during the incident.
He said based on Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol’s interview with local fishermen, the area where the reported collision took place was not well-lighted.
“It appears that they are in the middle of the sea… There was a portion of the sea that was shallow and they placed their anchor there,” Panelo said.
He said a presentation during the joint meeting of the defense and economic clusters of the Cabinet also showed that there were other boats in the area aside from the Filipino fishing boat and the Chinese vessel.
“But given that, as the President said, we still do not know the facts. Let’s wait because (the Cabinet’s defense cluster) promised to investigate and they are doing it… We are waiting for their findings. We are also investigating,” the spokesman said.
Panelo clarified that the Duterte administration is not yet taking China’s word with regard to the Recto Bank incident.
“It’s not a question of belief. What we are saying: both sides should stop speculating. That’s what the President is saying. That’s why he called on everyone to keep quiet… Let’s not jump to conclusions,” he said.
Panelo has proposed a joint investigation on the sinking of the ship.
Secretary to the Cabinet Karlo Nograles confirmed in a separate interview that conducting a joint probe was one of the options floated during the joint meeting of the economic and defense clusters last Monday.
“We filed a diplomatic protest and we will wait for the reply from China then we will work from there… After China makes the reply, when it does make a reply, then we will proceed with whatever options are open to us,” Nograles said.
Panelo said the Philippines can sue the Chinese crew if investigations show that they are guilty of abandoning the Filipino fishermen.
“Chinese government will have to do something about it. Under the (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), I was reading the provision, the flag carrier should initiate the investigation,” Panelo said.
“Number two, we can sue them. We can sue them because that’s our territory. It’s within Mindoro, so we can sue the offending vessel,” he added.
If the Philippines and China come up with conflicting findings, an arbitral body or office can be tapped to look into the incident, Panelo said.
“If we don’t agree on the findings, there has to be an independent body. We won’t be part of it. They won’t be part of it… Of course, we are hopeful that we will know what happened. Whoever is at fault should admit liability and give compensation,” he added.
Duterte is not inclined to summon or invite Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to Malacañang over the incident, Panelo said.
“But we feel – or the President, I think, is not inclined to do that because he feels that first, they (China) are doing something. The ambassador has issued a statement about seriously and cautiously studying the facts,” he added.
But contrary to Panelo’s claim, the Philippine government had asked envoys to explain their countries’ position on certain matters.
Cabinet officials have issued conflicting statements on whether the Chinese envoy would be asked to go to Malacañang to explain China’s side on the Recto Bank incident.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said inviting Zhao to Malacañang so he could discuss China’s final version of the incident came out during the joint meeting of the defense and economic clusters of the Cabinet last Monday.
Nograles later clarified that Cabinet members have not agreed to invite the ambassador but such proposal was made during the meeting.
Piñol, meanwhile, said in television interviews that Zhao would be summoned to the Palace.
“With respect to the word ‘summon.’ You just don’t summon, that’s not diplomatic… But we can invite,” Panelo said. “But the problem is why would you invite him when they are already conducting an investigation.”
“The President is a very cautious person and as a lawyer he is trained to listen to all sides, especially because there are adversarial claims. There are different versions, so he is very cautions (because) he does not want this blown into an international crisis,” Panelo said.
Panelo also said the President has to factor the country’s blossoming relations with Beijing and the welfare of 300,000 Filipinos working in China.
He did not mention the infrastructure packages granted by Beijing to the Philippines in connection with the Duterte administration’s Build, Build, Build program.
“We can never be slaves to anyone,” Panelo said at a press briefing yesterday.
As this developed, Nograles said there is no scheduled meeting yet between Duterte and the Filipino fishermen who figured in the Recto Bank incident.
“Let’s wait whether such meeting will take place,” he added.
While Duterte described the sinking of the boat as a “little maritime accident,” Nograles said the President regards it as an important issue.
“This is important. Filipinos are involved,” he added.
A maritime law expert said Saturday that satellite images contradicted China’s claim that its vessel, Yuemaobinyu 42212, was besieged by Filipino-owned fishing boats near Reed Bank – the supposed reason why the ship captain was afraid to rescue the 22 Filipino crew of Gem-Vir I.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, noted in a Facebook post that Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite satellite data on the night of the incident “show only a few fishing vessels operating in the area of Reed Bank at the time.”
Meanwhile, other experts on maritime issues yesterday said President Duterte’s response to the incident was right.
Former ambassador Alberto Encomienda, executive director of the Center for Archipelagic and Regional Seas Law and Policy Studies, said the issue was properly handled by the government.
“The President didn’t say anything but he did the right thing. The job of the executive is to keep things calm and have a proper assessment of the situation and thereafter, discuss what to do,” Encomienda said in a forum at Kamuning Bakery in Quezon City.
Lucio Pitlo III, who took graduate studies on defense, diplomacy and development from American University in Washington, said Duterte practiced restraint.
“The right thing to do is not to issue or come out with a statement for now. If it’s a domestic issue or politics, it will be easier – but if it involves another country, it will impact our relations,” Pitlo said.
George Siy, an economist and political analyst of the Integrated Development Studies Institute, said no country is able to control such situation.
“People are trying to magnify these events. These things happen but they do not define international relationships. This happens all over the world,” Siy said. – With Pia Lee-Brago, Christina Mendez, Rhodina Villanueva